West Virginia Rivers Coalition Launches Youth Engagement Project

Environmental stewardship youth engagement programs aren’t what they used to be. A generation ago, most kids grew up spending lots of free time outdoors—those connections to nature are how many people first learn environmental ethics. And back then, there weren’t so many exciting activities competing for teens’ attention. Environmental educators and mentors have had to change their approaches.

So when West Virginia Rivers Coalition planned a pilot youth engagement program focusing on two Chesapeake Bay tributaries, we did three things before we put pen to paper. First, because our goal was to use youth engagement to help build watershed groups' capacity, we surveyed our Choose Clean Water Coalition watershed partners in the Eastern Panhandle. They said they needed help reaching out to young people and their parents. They hoped teens would be ambassadors to other teens and parents.

Then we queried young adult leaders of youth programs to get their advice. The takeaways there: Empower teens to be self-directed, and incorporate technology.

Finally, we teamed up with two amazing West Virginia Choose Clean Water Coalition partners, Warm Springs Watershed Association (WSWA) and Friends of the Cacapon River (FCR). Together, we set about trying to create a program that could be replicated across the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The resulting program is OneWatershed, a scheme to empower youth as ambassadors and leaders that we marketed as a film school. Our recruitment invitation says it all: “Are you an aspiring storyteller or filmmaker? Want to learn to make films and produce news by telling the stories of Warm Springs Run and the Cacapon?

Our planning team identified a terrific retired television producer, Jack Kelly. Jack’s first idea was to dump any notion of using conventional cameras. “If we want kids to make films on their own, and upload those films the web,” he said, “we’ve got to train them how to use those things in their pockets or backpack.”

Those “things,” of course, are phones and tablets.

And so Jack, WSWA’s Kate Lehman and the FCR’s Rachel D’Agostino planned out a weeklong film camp. In addition to the technical elements of filmmaking and editing, the workshop hosted people with stories to tell: a sportsman whose life has been enriched by the Cacapon, a retired sewage treatment plan operator, a local fifth generation business owner, and more.

WSWA and FCR took on the task of helping to identify these interview subjects. They also recruited watershed experts from agencies and nonprofits to present on watershed topics for a short time each morning—sessions which sparked curiosity in our filmmakers.

Each group also planned events that could be filmed for stories. For example, WSWA conducted a stream monitoring program that was filmed by students.

On the first day of camp, when it was time to set up the iPads, I asked if any of the kids has an Apple ID. “Duh. . .” Of course they did. Did we give them instructions on setting up their new “cameras”? No, of course we didn’t. Did they take to creating stories about streams and the connections between people and water? Indeed, like fish in water, they needed no help learning to swim.

Seven teens attended the pilot program. They all say they learned way more than they thought they would. But it’s safe to say we adults learned so much more from our teen filmmakers: about how kids naturally know how to collaborate with people different from them; about how they are capable of using technology to explore being human—not detract from it; and how their approaches to environmental stewardship are going to different than their parents’, and that’s okay.

We’re sorting through the practical lessons of the pilot, especially how the model can be both effective and replicated watershed to watershed. We look forward to sharing those ideas with the Choose Clean Water Coalition community.

In the meantime, have a look at some of our short videos at www.wvrivers.org/news/onewatershed.